Work Lessons

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When your work speaks for itself, don’t interrupt.

Henry J. Kaiser

I’ve been working since I was fifteen years old. Evidence can be found in last week’s essay. I spoke about all the good work I’ve done. Satisfying accomplishments. Hard work (not like my father’s work as a truck mechanic or my mother’s as a mother and head of the house work). Our father lectured us often about not wanting us to end up under the truck with grease on our hands (I wonder what truck mechanics make these days?). Our father also taught us the value of hard work, perseverance, and not being a “lazy bum” to use his words. Of course, I’ve often been accused of taking the working hard part a little too seriously. Workaholic. Workhorse. Hustler. The hardest working man in _____(Fill in the blank).

Of course, there is a negative side to working all the time. It’s called no life. However, when I think about all the jobs I’ve held in my fifty-nine years of working, I can honestly say that my values, life philosophy, and my view of the world and people flow from the experiences of work. Whether being a motorcycle courier (short-cuts and strategy of driving on the L.A. Freeways) or being Executive Producer of Live Television (Where do I begin?), I learned valuable work lessons that became the life lessons I use daily.

A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.

Albert Camus

Those who know me well would be shocked to hear that I once thought of myself as shy. When I was with the education advocacy organization United Bronx Parents in 1968, I would often be asked to call parents to invite them to a rally or a meeting. I would be given a phone list with some written speech I was supposed to read to them. I could not, for the life of me, call someone on the phone to ask them to do something or ask them a question. I swear I would freeze. I could barely dial (rotary phone) the letters and numbers.

A simple call would take minutes instead of a minute. My voice would crack from the nervousness. I don’t know why this happened. It just did. I was nineteen years old. Now, mind you, I didn’t seem to have a problem talking to people in person. I’ve spoken to students at an anti-war rally, so why would I crack under pressure from speaking anonymously to someone on the phone? Of course, with time, the phobia disappeared as I realized that those calls were more than calls. They were part of an essential organizing effort to invite Black and Latino parents to take control of their children’s education (It didn’t mean the same then as it does for some parents now). Lesson learned: confidence to solve a problem and inspire people.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

When I was the host of two radio shows at WHUR-FM, Howard University, I spoke to hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people, anonymously, and aside from some early technical f*ck-ups, I learned to take those lessons from United Bronx Parents and used that confidence to speak and connect with that audience. I wasn’t afraid to use the platform I had to not only play great Salsa (La Voz del Barrio) and Jazz (Espiritu Libre) but also speak about national and local political issues. It was the early seventies, Nixon was President, and Washington, D.C. was seen as a city without power for its mostly Black residents (The word plantation was often thrown around). But I learned important lessons about organization, communication techniques, and the ability and courage to tackle complex subjects without fear when needed.

To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.

Pearl S. Buck

That confidence would strengthen me when I became a television reporter. I asked challenging questions of politicians, police, cat lovers (I covered more than one pet show), bureaucrats and accused people facing trial. There’s a benefit in learning how to not only speak with and to people but also an ability to read people, body language, the skill to see clearly between the lines, and the strength to call people out when you must.

The most critical skills that came out of the first twenty years of work life in New York and Washington, D.C., was the ability to see, hear, and speak of the world square on. Not to flinch when it seemed hopeless but to keep moving forward, through it, around it, under it, over it if necessary.

And all of this happened before I moved to Los Angeles, California, where I knew one person, and my first job was as a motorcycle courier. Up until that point in 1984, I had never ridden a motorcycle. So I went out and learned how to ride one, got a job, and learned how to get around Metro L.A. to the point that I probably knew more shortcuts than most native Angelenos. I learned not only those shortcuts but also so much more about L.A., the city, the culture, and the people. I began to soak myself in the inspiration of this city.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Bartending? Man, if you deal with a bunch of drunk men and women for two and a half years, you should get a medal and a big ass bonus. I learned about herding cats and manipulating (in a good way) people to trust you with their secrets and big tips.

So, I took all the experiences and skills learned in those first L.A. jobs and everything from my time on the east coast, and I knew I was ready for a television production job. Why? Well, producing is about organization, strategy, confidence, patience, people power, creativity, budgets, negotiation, bribery (okay, maybe not in the strict sense of the word), and calling forth all of that New York attitude (Some might call it cojones) that I could muster to rise from a segment producer to an Executive Producer of Live Events. I could synthesize all those skills into doing my job and still learn how to hone them into new skills about people and life and success and the occasional failure without losing my mind or soul.

The call of the artist is to follow the excitement. Where there’s excitement, there’s energy. And where there is energy, there is light.

Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way of Being

There were plenty of other lessons learned at other jobs not mentioned, but in the end, all this has helped me with my college life (Learning a few things there too). I keep going because the greatest lesson I’ve learned is that for a long time, work was my life, and now my life is work for me. I’m taking all I have learned to learn more. Skills to living a fuller life, a life where just waking up every morning breathing, sober, and ready for the day, is the great lesson I’ve learned.

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